Aca­demic free­dom? Not here

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

both were re­jected. So was an­other UK pa­per, and so too was a fourth by my col­league Pa­trick Bate­son and me.

One of the speak­ers at Trin­ity was Steven Salaita, well known for his dis­pute with the Univer­sity of Illi­nois Ur­bana-Cham­paign, where in 2013 he was made a con­di­tional of­fer of a fac­ulty po­si­tion. Be­fore he took up the post the of­fer was with­drawn by the Chan­cel­lor, cit­ing tweets of Salaita’s such as: “If Ne­tanyahu ap­peared on TV with a neck­lace made from the teeth of Pales­tinian chil­dren, would any­body be sur­prised?”

An­other speaker, Mark LeVine from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine, has ar­gued that “Is­rael’s oc­cu­pa­tion of Pales­tinian ter­ri­tory rep­re­sents crim­i­nalised state be­hav­iour at the most sys­tem­atic, in­tri­cately planned and ex­e­cuted,” while on Face­book he has writ­ten “F**k all of you who want to make ar­gu­ments about ci­vil­ity and how Is­rael wants peace.”

Ear­lier this year a sim­i­lar “aca­demic con­fer­ence” was held in Cork, called In­ter­na­tional Law and the State of Is­rael: Le­git­i­macy, Re­spon­si­bil­ity and Ex­cep­tion­al­ism. Those at­tend­ing heard that the foun­da­tion of the state of Is­rael was “the most suc­cess­ful ter­ror cam­paign in his­tory”; that “Zion­ists had adopted a racist, geno­ci­dal and ex­clu­sive world view”; that Is­rael had per­pe­trated “the most com­pre­hen­sive eth­nic cleans­ing op­er­a­tion in his­tory”; that it’s ap­pro­pri­ate to use the word “un­ter­men­schen” in de­scrib­ing Is­raelis’ views of Pales­tini­ans; that the 9/11 at­tack on the Twin Tow­ers was car­ried out by Mos­sad; that “the Zion­ist para­noia and de­sire to be hated is deeply con­nected to the Jewish need to have an en­emy to sus­tain its iden­tity”; and that Zion­ist par­ents de­lib­er­ately starve their chil­dren of af­fec­tion to cre­ate the cal­lous­ness nec­es­sary to do what Is­raelis al­legedly do to Pales­tini­ans.

Of the 46 speak­ers at Cork only one was clearly iden­ti­fi­able as pro-Is­rael; a sec­ond pro-Is­rael speaker, Alan John­son, can­celled his par­tic­i­pa­tion when he learned that Richard Falk had been in­vited to give a key­note ad­dress at the meet­ing. (Falk is no­to­ri­ous for words and ac­tions that have been widely con­demned as an­ti­semitic). But sup­pose John­son had spo­ken in Cork. Does a to­tal of two speak­ers out of 46 rep­re­sent the “fair dis­cus­sion of con­trary views”?

The Cork meet­ing was orig­i­nally planned for April 2015 by two pro­fes­sors at Southamp­ton, Oren Ben-Dor and Suleiman Sharkh. A few weeks be­fore it was due to take place Steve White, Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer of the Univer­sity of Southamp­ton, wrote to Ben-Dor, with­draw­ing per­mis­sion. White’s let­ter made it clear that his de­ci­sion was based on se­ri­ous con­cerns about se­cu­rity on cam­pus. At first Ben-Dor had said the con­fer­ence would have “a bal­anced view”. But White ar­gued that the fi­nal list had “a dis­tinct lean­ing to­wards one point of view,” mak­ing the risk of protest very great.

Ben-Or and Sharkh then claimed that their right to free speech was be­ing vi­o­lated, but failed when they ap­plied to the High Court for ju­di­cial re­view of the univer­sity’s ac­tion. Judge Alice Robin­son re­fused the ap­pli­ca­tion.

When, a year later, Ben-Or and Sharkh an­nounced that they in­tended to re-run the con­fer­ence, the Univer­sity agreed to al­low it to go ahead and asked the con­fer­ence to pay for the costs of polic­ing and se­cu­rity. Once again the or­gan­is­ers went to the High Court, and once again the judge (now Mrs Jus­tice Whip­ple) found that the univer­sity had acted en­tirely prop­erly:“From all that I have seen in this case, I be­lieve that free­dom of ex­pres­sion and free­dom of as­sem­bly are alive and well at Southamp­ton Univer­sity.”

This did not pre­vent BDS sup­port­ers from pub­lish­ing mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the univer­sity’s ac­tions. Hi­lary Aked wrote about “spu­ri­ous ‘health and safety’ con­cerns” and “an out­ra­geous af­front to free­dom of speech . . . . The Is­rael lobby” she went on “has a long his­tory of cen­sor­ship . . .”

If the sin­is­ter “Is­rael lobby” tried to cen­sor the Trin­ity con­fer­ence, its ef­forts were strik­ingly un­suc­cess­ful. The two prin­ci­pal speak­ers made it clear that all ques­tions con­cern­ing the rights and wrongs of the Is­rael/Pales­tine con­flict (in­clud­ing the de­sir­abil­ity of the boy­cott) had been defini­tively set­tled, and any ex­pres­sion of con­trary views would be, at best, a waste of time. From Salaita’s speech, (avail­able on YouTube) we learn that “If it is not turned to­wards rev­o­lu­tion­ary ends, then there is no rea­son for aca­demic free­dom to ex­ist”. For LeVine, hear­ing any al­ter­na­tive opin­ion was akin to hav­ing a cli­mate change de­nier or a creation­ist at a sci­ence con­fer­ence. So much for the or­gan­is­ers’ pi­ous re­marks about “the role of the pub­lic univer­sity in fos­ter­ing aca­demic free­dom”.

A re­cent, re­mark­ably bland, ac­count of the Trin­ity con­fer­ence by Conor McCarthy, a found­ing mem­ber of the Ire­land-Pales­tine Sol­i­dar­ity Cam­paign, sug­gests the or­gan­is­ers may be start­ing to feel em­bar­rassed about its nakedly one-sided na­ture. Ac­cord­ing to McCarthy, LeVine merely “in­tro­duced the is­sues un­der­pin­ning the con­fer­ence.” And Salaita’s speech was sooth­ingly de­scribed as “re­flect­ing on why there is a gen­eral as­sump­tion in favour of Is­rael’s colo­nial project, while ar­gu­ments in favour of Pales­tini­ans’ rights of­ten run into ‘benev­o­lent con­tempt’.”

Still, the ques­tion re­mains whether aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions will now be on guard against at­tempts to in­volve them in pro­pa­ganda ex­er­cises that sail un­der the false flag of “aca­demic con­fer­ences”.

Michael Yud­kin is a re­tired pro­fes­sor of bio­chem­istry at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford. He has been work­ing in op­po­si­tion to the aca­demic boy­cott since 2003

Of the 46 speak­ers at Cork only one was proIs­rael


Trin­ity Col­lege, Dublin

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